author of The Butterfly Cabinet
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in the parish of Lavey in County Derry, Northern Ireland, the youngest of ten children. I went to Primary School there, Secondary in the nearby town of Maghera and to Queen’s University in Belfast to study English and Italian. As part of my studies, I spent a year working in a school in Italy from 1987-88. When I’d finished my undergraduate studies, I completed an MA in Irish Writing.
When I was little and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said ‘Teacher’. I knew that was an acceptable response because they’d always smile and nod their heads at that, but I was lying. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but for a long time I thought of it as something that was beyond my grasp. When I left University, I worked as a Creative Writing facilitator and as the manager of a professional theatre company. I worked in the arts sector, supporting other people’s imaginative activity, because I wasn’t brave enough to be upfront about my own. Then, when my daughters were about five and three, we had (yet another) childcare crisis, and I decided to give up the day job, be around for the children, and invest some time in writing. Financially, it may not have been the most astute decision, but it was life-changing in so many positive ways.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I thought that every succeeding generation was more liberal in their thinking and more tolerant in their outlook, than the one that went before. I think this will always be true of individuals, but I no longer believe it of whole groups of people. I’m still amazed at how blinkered some groups in society can be.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved when I was in my twenties. It was like a fog had lifted! I’d spent a lot of time, by then, reading academic works, many of them by dead, male, white, Irish writers and I think that compounded the idea that modern fiction was unserious and disposable, that it dealt with matters that were of-the-moment and would have no lasting impact. For someone who was interested in writing, the canon of Irish literature cast a very long shadow. It was a complete revelation to read Morrison and, also, Alice Walker who I read later. These were writers with whom I had no real cultural commonality, but they spoke to me in a way that very few of the writers I’d studied had.
One exception was Flann O’Brien. His book At Swim-Two-Birds is a seemingly chaotic assortment of farcical scenes and self-indulgent musings from a Dublin student protagonist and narrator who tells us in the first paragraph that, ‘One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.’ It’s very funny, quite anarchic and (first published in 1939), way ahead of its time.
My third choice would be a play: The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh. I have never laughed so hard, or been moved so much, by a piece of theatre. He’s a complete master of the form. Works such as these are both inspirational and aspirational. They make me want to reach higher.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I write for theatre as well, and I write short stories. I don’t think they are in any way mutually exclusive, in fact, at their best, they feed off and into one another. I love the theatre. There is an immediacy and an ephemerality about it that is both part of its charm and part of its frustration. For me, the goal has always been to write a book that I could weigh in my hand, that would be around, at least for a little while. I’m really glad I managed to do that before the digital age completely took over. I’m delighted The Butterfly Cabinet is available as an ebook, but I wouldn’t have the same sense of satisfaction about it if I couldn’t walk into a bookshop and see the spine of it there with all the other books. It’s a real, made thing.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
I first read of the story of Annie Margaret Montagu in an historical article in a local Parish bulletin – of how she tied up her young child in a wardrobe room at Cromore House in Portstewart in 1892 and returned to find the child strangled. Cromore House is about a mile from where I live and is now a residential nursing home – I pass the avenue that leads up to the house regularly, and after reading the article, every time I did so I got a shiver up my spine. I was utterly compelled by the story: what sort of woman would do such a thing? What was her family life like? Were there other children in the household? What happened to her? What was the reaction at the time?
I began to research the story and the more I read, the more intrigued I became: at the time of her trial, Annie Montagu was pregnant with her ninth child; the child that died was the only girl in the family. The press described her as cold and apparently unfeeling; she was recorded as laughing in the courtroom; servants gave evidence as to her cruelty towards her children; her peers testified that she bargained over horses in the marketplace and rode to the hunt while pregnant. Here was a woman who did herself no favours, who did not court popularity, who did not appear to conform to the role in society that had been assigned to her. There was one account that seemed a little more sympathetic – a reporter who described her as pale and still under her veil, and clearly keeping her emotions in check. I wanted to know who she was, or who she could have been. I wanted to see behind the veil to the real person who could have left her child tied up in an airless room until she strangled.
However uncomfortable it made me feel, I wanted to try and find out what it would have felt like to be the woman who turned the key in the door of that room and opened it to find her dead child.
I hope that they have questions in their head about how people behave in difficult circumstances. I hope they have opinions about the behaviour of the characters in the book and I hope they know people whose opinions on that are very different and with whom they can disagree. I hope there’s plenty of argument.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
It’s a long list, for lots of different reasons, but broadly, because I believe in the worlds they create: Peter Carey, John Banville, Anne Enright, Claire Keegan, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Joseph O’Connnor, Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, Andrea Levy, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Maggie O‘Farrell, Zadie Smith, Pat Barker, Anne Michaels, Sebastian Barry, Patrick McCabe, Monica Ali, Annie Proulx, Alice Sebold, Lionel Shriver.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To finish another book, would be good! And any prizes anyone would like to award me would be gratefully accepted.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read and read and read and write and write and write. Take every opportunity to listen to writers read their work and talk about their methods. Read writers of different gender, cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds to your own. You may discover you have more in common than you think.
Bernie, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.